On Saturday morning, Ann Arbor locals and visitors puckered up to sample a selection of 43 pickled foods at Downtown Home & Garden on South Ashley Street — a store that has been around for more than a century.
The Eighth Annual Pickle Contest and Public Tasting is part of the store’s month-long showcase of locally created preserved food items.
Kelly Vore, Downtown Home & Garden owner and event coordinator, said the competition was one of several at the store this month that publicized the talents of food preservers in Ann Arbor. During the public event, participants were invited to sample as many pickled items as they wanted before voting on the entries they enjoyed.
The local picklers had the opportunity to receive a $100 gift card to the store if their entry received the most votes.
“Everything here is contributed by our customers, who are very generous with their entries,” Vore said. “We help them plan early in the season with their gardens, and in turn they share the benefits of the harvest with the community. You never know what you’re going to see.”
The number of entries has doubled since last year’s event, and Vore said pickling has increased in popularity because of its “trendiness.” Vore added that pickling and other methods of preservation are popular pursuits during summer, particularly following months of abundant harvest.
“The harvest changes every year — you never know exactly what to expect, but pickling and fermenting is definitely a growing side of the preserving business,” Vore said. “You’ve probably seen more pickles or preserved things in general at the grocery store. It’s a growing side of the industry.”
For several tasters, the event provided the opportunity to share a common interest among other members of the community. Many of those who came to taste the pickled foods said they never knew there were so many people who pickled in the area.
“I was kind of curious, because I love pickles,” said Ann Arbor resident Patrick Laughlin. “ I’m getting the impression that there’s a limit of one entry per contestant, so I guess people are more into pickling than I thought. What a nice way to spend the morning.”
Noting the resurgence of food preservation in Ann Arbor, Vore said her store is locally recognized for having original competitions that allow residents to try new foods, such as the 18th Annual Jam Public Tasting and Contest, which welcomed 52 jam entries last week.
She said the store’s model of preserved food competition has been around for decades.
“These are things that used to be down at state fair competitions 75, 100 years ago. In that vein, we’re keeping those kinds of traditions alive. People like to share their creative ideas and it’s very appreciated,” Vore said.
The 43 entries in Saturday's competition were arranged around a long rectangular table in the center of one of the store’s rooms. To better categorize the broad range of pickled foods, the samples were organized into several sections based on flavor, including bread and butter pickles, dills pickles, sour pickles, various pickled vegetables and spicy pickles.
Competition between picklers extended beyond appearance and taste — contestants were encouraged to create a name that encapsulated the character of their pickled item.
“If you’re trying to start a rock band, and can’t think of a name, pull one from our ballots,” Vore said. “For example ‘Briana’s Beautiful Bread and Butter pickles’ or ‘Don’t Be Chicken — I’m Just a Hen of the Woods’ are some of the great names.”
Other popular names were “Butter Than Average,” “Tess’s Terrific Dilly Beans,” “Pucker Up!” and “Briny Bloods.”
Rackham student Alicia Stevers said when she spotted pickled chicken, she knew she’d have to try it while she had the rare opportunity.
“I think it was a really bold decision. I was expecting a lot of pickles and pickled vegetables — pickled meats weren’t really on my radar,” Stevers said. “I’ll try everything once; now I can say I’ve tried pickled chicken.”